Posted April 22, 2013 by in Literary Travels

Literary Grave Hunting

A curious hobby

Haworth parsonage, seen through the churchyard.

The Brontës’ home, Haworth parsonage, as seen through the churchyard.

Graveyards are some of my favorite places to explore. Not for any morbid reason, mind you. I don’t find them spooky (though I don’t tend to walk through them at night) or even melancholy. Instead, I browse the graves for striking names, notably short or long life spans, twisting family relationships, and mawkish sentiments etched in stone. The older the cemetery, the better – though if you get any older than the Victorian period you might find that all the writing has worn away. There’s a gentle magic to a cemetery: you get a sense of the weight of human history; in this microcosm, all the joy and striving and heartache have come to a final, relieved rest.

Living in England has spoiled me; in a country the size of Louisiana one finds an overabundance of graves of the famous and infamous from every era of history. My special delight is in finding literary graves. The first place for any literary tourist to start would be Westminster Abbey, where some of the greatest literary lights are buried, including Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, and Alfred Tennyson. In addition, there are memorials to many of the best-known British novelists and poets who happen to be buried elsewhere. Thomas Hardy’s is an interesting case: although the nation wished to honor him with a grave at Westminster Abbey, he knew his heart would always be with his beloved Dorset. And so he literally left his heart there, buried at Stinsford Church in southwest England, and had the rest of his ashes interred at the Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.


Exploring England through graves

The Elizabeth Gaskell Memorial tower in Knutsford.

The Elizabeth Gaskell Memorial Tower in Knutsford.

Visiting Westminster Abbey is a prime way to start your literary grave hunting, and a beautiful building to see anyway, but it’s something of a copout – most of the writers honored there are not actually present. If you want to search out the bones, you’ll have to look farther afield. It seems absurd for a grave-loving Victorianist to admit, but in nearly eight years of living in England I’ve still never made it to north London’s Highgate Cemetery, where the literary who’s who includes George Eliot, Karl Marx, John Galsworthy, Radclyffe Hall, Christina Rossetti, and, more recently, Douglas Adams. Even without these celebrity inhabitants, it looks like a splendid place for exploring, with architectural wonders in marble awaiting the eager visitor around every corner. Another London cemetery that would surely be worth the bibliophile’s while is Kensal Green, where you can pay homage to Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

J. R. R. Tolkien's grave at Wolvercote, Oxford.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s grave at Wolvercote, Oxford.

Yet even more fun than finding an author in the midst of a large, high-profile cemetery (such as Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where in 2004 I joined the throngs in pressing my lips to Oscar Wilde’s tomb – before such practice was outlawed) is making a special trip to find writers who lie in isolation or obscurity. My travels have taken me to Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, where William Shakespeare rests at Holy Trinity Church; to Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen was buried in 1817; to Haworth in Yorkshire, where the Brontë sisters lived their short, strange, lonely lives and where Emily and Charlotte are buried in a family vault beneath the local church; to Elizabeth Gaskell’s beloved Knutsford, Cheshire – her hometown, burial place, and the model for the fictional community in Cranford; to northern England’s beautiful Lake District, where the Wordsworths lie at St. Oswald’s Church, Grasmere; and to the suburban Oxford cemetery at Wolvercote, where J. R. R. Tolkien’s simple gravestone is easy to miss.


Lewis Carroll's grave in Guildford.

Lewis Carroll’s grave in Guildford.

Making a pilgrimage

Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll (the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) is buried in the cemetery at Guildford, Surrey, reached after a long trek up a steep hill from the town. Graves can often be a challenge to find – even once you’ve found the cemetery there may be no indication of where the famous occupant lies – but this only serves to remind you that this is a pilgrimage, and the pilgrim’s way may pass through difficult terrain. In fact, I would encourage you to take the longest route possible in finding the remains of a favorite writer. Driving a car straight up to the cemetery gates is the cheater’s method (and often not possible in a place like London, for instance). Take a train or a bus, then your own two legs. Stretch out the journey. Enjoy the quest.

Inside the D. H. Lawrence Memorial near Taos, New Mexico.

Inside the D. H. Lawrence Memorial near Taos, New Mexico.

Many moons ago I made such a quest as a recent Hood College graduate, when I presented an academic paper at the 2005 D. H. Lawrence Society of North America (DHLSNA) conference, which that year took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The highlight of a whirlwind week of lectures and activities (and my first and only imposter’s attempt to breach academia) was a coach trip to the Lawrences’ Kiowa ranch outside Taos, where the author and his wife Frieda lived in 1924 and 1925. Lawrence’s remains were transferred there, after his death from tuberculosis in France in 1930, and housed in a specially-built memorial chapel with striking sunflower and phoenix motifs.


American painter John Singer Sargent is buried at Brookwood Cemetery.

American portrait painter John Singer Sargent is buried at Brookwood Cemetery.

Having a stroll

Even if a cemetery doesn’t have any famous writers in residence, it can still be a wonderful place for a meditative walk. During a year living in Woking, Surrey, we enjoyed a jaunt out to Brookwood Cemetery, which from the 1850s served as storage for London’s superfluity of corpses. Instead of overloading the City’s already crowded graveyards, Victorians sent their dead out on the railway from Waterloo station to Brookwood. In addition to a role as London’s ‘Necropolis,’ Brookwood also offered plots to ethnic minorities, incorporating the first Muslim cemetery in Britain as well as St. Edward the Martyr Russian Orthodox church and dedicated burial areas for Serbians, Latvians, and Canadians. Still one of the largest cemeteries in Western Europe, Brookwood has a fascinating history and is a charming place for a summer stroll.

Henry David Thoreau's grave in Concord, Massachusetts

Henry David Thoreau’s grave in Concord, Massachusetts.

Likewise, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts may seem like an unusual honeymoon stop, but it provided an oasis of calm and shade on a scorching August day in the vicinity of Boston. Ah, but if I’d only known that many American poets, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, are buried there! Luckily we took advantage of being in the area to find Henry David Thoreau’s simple headstone at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Alcotts are also buried.


The pursuit of the past

Florence Nightingale's tomb in Hampshire.

Florence Nightingale’s tomb at East Wellow, Hampshire.

Wherever you live, there’s bound to be a famous literary grave somewhere nearby. Particularly on this side of the pond, you never know who you’ll find; several years back we stumbled upon nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale’s tomb at the Church of St. Margaret in East Wellow, not far from the Hampshire village where my husband grew up. I keep a copy of Who Lies Where? handy for making such unexpected discoveries, and I have also found the Poets’ Graves website useful.

The Fitzgeralds' grave in Rockville, Maryland.

The Fitzgeralds’ grave in Rockville, Maryland.

Literary graves can, of course, be hunted down in the U.S. too. The Find a Grave website provides exhaustive information about famous gravesites, both in America and internationally, and is searchable by state and country, or by name. On a recent trip back to see my family in Maryland, I finally got around to visiting F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda at their incongruous resting place in suburban Washington, D.C. St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland has a lovely churchyard, but it felt strange to be reading the unforgettable last line of The Great Gatsby across from glass-fronted office buildings and a busy state highway.

However, that line may well be a good summation of how I feel about graveyards, with their reminder of human frailty and their mysterious conjunction of past, present, and future: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing. Check out all my articles.